The most powerful intuition motivating realism is an old idea, commonly referred to in recent discussions as the “miracle argument” or “no miracles argument”, after Putnam’s (1975a: 73) claim that realism “is the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle”. The argument begins with the widely accepted premise that our best theories are extraordinarily successful: they facilitate empirical predictions, retrodictions, and explanations of the subject matters of scientific investigation, often marked by astounding accuracy and intricate causal manipulations of the relevant phenomena. What explains this success? One explanation, favored by realists, is that our best theories are true (or approximately true, or correctly describe a mind-independent world of entities, laws, etc.). Indeed, if these theories were far from the truth, so the argument goes, the fact that they are so successful would be miraculous.

The SEP goes on to mention arguments against and counter arguments to that. What is its current status? I have studied this, a few decades ago, and I recall the most robust wording of it being that the success of novel empirical predictions needs a realist explanation. Does that withstand the criticisms mentioned in the article? If so, what about technological succesess, which are prima facie a lot more amazing that the fact there is a new particle that may not really exist?


  • The current status is most likely what you can find in your own link. Whether it withstands criticism would be for you to judge. Or you can potentially see what philosophers think of scientific realism in a survey (but that isn't specific to the miracles argument). Philosophical arguments don't typically/ever have definitive resolutions. "what about technological succesess" - what about technological successes? Those are often based on scientific principles. "Amazing" is not "miraculous". A miracle is something extraordinarily unlikely.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 20 at 1:05
  • you don't think technological success is miraculous? if so, why not @NotThatGuy i was just asking someone to do the work of figuring out the claims and counter claims on the link, i.e. where the burden of proof is
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 20 at 3:54
  • 2
    "you don't think technological success is miraculous" - why do you think it is? Did your computer suddenly pop into existence fully-formed from nothingness, or was it built based on centuries of incremental scientific advancement? If you think the latter is a miracle, then I can only assume you interpret "miraculous" as "amazing", even though I just pointed out that this is not what the argument you're referring to is about.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 20 at 4:07
  • idt we should get bogged down in an argument, and you've answered my question, so thanks. suffice to say that idt it's just scientific leaps that seem "miraculous" and it might well seem miraculous, centuries ago, that man would walk on the moon. we are easily bored. what is it about observation that is miraculous and not utilisation of science with technology. extreme accuracy is present in both, e.g.
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 20 at 4:09
  • e.g. Okasha cites the theory behind laser technology @NotThatGuy (not read the book, ofc) theories have "technological applications". is it wrong to call their application in technology, rather than say experiment ("empirical success"), miracle like? by 'amazing' i just mean having more intutiive appeal. idt it was spiits that did it anyway
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 20 at 4:16

5 Answers 5


Science in a nutshell

Observe that the blue straight line is the sum of the red and green curves (parabolas). People not told this would assume that a particular scientific theory is a simple straight line, when in fact it is a complex interplay of different curves. We may not say that a particular theory (blue line) is true, because there's another theory, a more complex theory that also explains a given phenomenon (red and green parabola combo).

Even if we concede the no miracles argument is sound, we still can't plant the flag of Veritas on new discoveries and so-called "established scientific fact".

  • 1
    i feel dumb. lol thanks!
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 21 at 1:09
  • "I feel dumb" is exactly the kinda statement my answer applies to. :D
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 21 at 1:51
  • 1
    Plus one for a lovely example. Commented Feb 20 at 7:39
  • Wonderful example! Commented Mar 22 at 16:31

I would say it's mostly about intuitive appeal. There isn't a clearly, strictly defined class of 'realisms' and 'antirealism' which answer the question of why science is so succesful given an antirealist or a realist intepretation of scientific theories. For example, epistemic structural realism (ESR) (ex. in its Ramsay-Sentence variation) is said by some to be banal and realist only in the weak, and not any robust, sense, but it is also said to answer Putnam's "no miracles" challenge.

John Worall is a well-known proponent of ESR and he discusses the relation between his position and the no-miracles argument later in this talk (around ~fourthieth minute-ish).

  • among its tenured proponents?
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 19 at 22:07
  • @user66697 Wdym?
    – user71009
    Commented Jan 19 at 22:08
  • does it carry mostly only an intutive appeal to its defenders? if so, is it dead... if intuitive. i guess you also answered the follow up question: it doesn't matter in what way we think science is successful
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 19 at 22:08
  • @user66697 I elaborate what I mean by "intuitive appeal" in the second sentence of my response. It's hard to determine an exact requirement which does justice to Putnam's argument but there are theories which struggle to incorporate the intuitions and others that don't.
    – user71009
    Commented Jan 20 at 0:42
  • there's no need to point out things i didn't ask for clarification of
    – user71083
    Commented Jan 20 at 0:47

“no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.”

-Hume, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Chapter 10, 'Of Miracles'

Hume's concern was to evaluate the proper value of testimony about the world. He makes the case that the regularities of Natural Law have been established by many observations, so observing rare and doubtable miracles is not enough to overturn them, and further that an undoubtable 'miracle' would simply become part of our new understanding of Natural Laws. Essentially he arrived at the realism taken up by science as leading to a physicalist-materialist view of the world. As you may know, that has been quite succesful, and the insights and advances owed to science are widely considered powerful evidence to justify taking this perspective.

But there are many religious scientists, who grant special value to the testimony of specific people, to grant authority to events and people as acting contrary to Natural Law. This runs into problems for a dispassionate observer, when the miracles declared to have happened contradict, like by supporting different religions or the existence of different gods. Analysis of arguments simply does not convince all religious people though, and they may be able to apply sound empirical principles in regard to every other topic, and so be good scientists. I would look to Durkheim's picture of religion to understand this, that groups are bound together by what they enact together holding sacred. That is that it's a mistake to see religions only as lists of asserted truths, as the role of ritual shows how their role in building social cohesion has been as or more important than say their cosmology.

Plenty of philosophers disagree with realism, with for instance forms of idealism like held by mathematical Platonists, still being widespread. If mathematics is somehow more fundamental than phenomena, that cannot be demonstrated by looking at phenomena, and so involves unfalsiable ideas considered outside of science. But interpretations of the Measurement Problem in Quantum Mechanics are also technically outside of science, by this criteria. And how to generate new hypothesees, the creativity of scientists, is definitely outside of science - but essential to it!

So, in terms of status, many religious people ignore Hume's argument, and many philosophers dispute it. But in scientific practice, I'd say it's basically unchallenged, in terms of looking at experiments and observation. But drawing a hard line of demarcation to say anything not justifiable by experience isn't science, is generally not seen as necessary, or useful.


Terence McKenna is reputed to have quipped:

Modern science is based on the principle: Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain all the rest. The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.

For people wondering what he's talking about, physicists/cosmologist call this one miracle the Initial singularity of the Big Bang


The argument is simply weak since it would not be a miracle if a theory was false and it made successful predictions

Firstly, in philosophy, a miracle is a violation of a law of nature. If a theory is false, and one still makes successful predictions, this does not imply that any violations are occurring: it could simply be a very unlikely coincidence

Secondly, many theories have made successful predictions only to turn out to be false with respect to its ontology. As an example, suppose that I could read your mind but I propose that an Invisible Pink Unicorn is guiding this process. If I now make successful predictions, it would not be a miracle if the theory of an Invisible Pink Unicorn guiding my mind turned out to be false. I could simply be reading your mind through another mechanism.

Science is not just about prediction, it’s also about explanation, and a theory with no explanatory power that makes successful predictions may be useful to us but doesn’t really tell us anything fundamental about the universe.

I suppose you can get around this by stating that a theory is defined by just its predictions, but then the no miracles argument becomes a tautology. It would amount to “if predictions weren’t true, it would be a miracle if predictions were true.” which is an obvious statement.

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